Tools to use after play

This is part of the article series “making your game fun for everyone“.

Once you’ve concluded play, there’s still the opportunity to support each other’s comfort and enjoyment. This comes in two basic forms: feedback and debrief. You can choose to do either, both or neither, as appropriate, and in deciding that it’s important to be alert to how the rest of the group are feeling. You should be clear which you’re doing, though. If you’re doing both, it’s a good idea to keep them as separate conversations, since they serve very different purposes.

Feedback is very simply verbally letting people know what you liked or worked well, what you’d like more of and perhaps what you were unhappy with, or felt didn’t work, and would like to avoid in future. It’s particularly good if you’ve got a group you play with again and again, because it helps everyone to understand each others’ preferences and steer future games towards maximum fun.

There are a bunch of formal ways of giving feedback: Roses and Thorns asks everyone to say at least one thing they enjoyed and one thing they did not enjoy; Stars and Wishes asks everyone to award at least one star to someone who did something they enjoyed, and ask for one thing they’d like to see in a future session; Script Change’s Highlight Reel asks everyone to say something they enjoyed; or you can each nominate an MVP from the game. Formalising feedback using one or more of the techniques above can be helpful to encourage people who are more reticent with their feedback to step up, and ensuring that you make time for it.

Debrief is simply talking about stuff that happened in the game in a less critical way. You can use it to reminisce about the best bits and share your enthusiasm, or to process your thoughts and feelings about stuff that happened in the game. It can also be an opportunity to share secrets that were never fully revealed in the game. Being clear about the purpose of the debrief is a good idea, so you don’t get enthusiastic reminiscing mixed up with processing feelings, for example. Debrief is particularly appropriate at the end of a game, or as an occasional tool, rather than necessarily to be used in every session.

Debrief is an opportunity to talk about how things made us feel. We might feel positive or negative emotions, and that’s independent of whether we consider the game to have been a positive or negative experience or what went well or badly. (For instance, I might feel terribly sad after a very moving session, but feel really great about having had the experience.) It’s an opportunity to process those feelings and any bleed. As mentioned above, you should keep this separate from feedback, since critique is likely to be disruptive to exploring these feelings.

One note of caution here: both feedback and debriefing can leave people feeling bad about what you’re telling them. Something they did in the game that you didn’t like, or something they did in the game that made you feel negatively, are particularly sensitive topics. Equally, someone might feel let down if their positive contribution to the game isn’t acknowledged. That doesn’t mean you should shy away from post-game discussions, but handle them sensitively, taking into account the feelings of your fellow players. For particularly challenging conversations, you might save them for a later date, when feelings have cooled, though it’s ok if you don’t feel able to do that. When talking about in-game events, try to distinguish between the people at the table and their characters, particularly if you’re talking about negative feelings; and try to talk about the experience rather than critiquing others, if you can.

Hunting around on the internet I’ve so far not found any structured tools for debriefing (though there are some discussion articles), and surprisingly little about doing it at all. (Please do get in touch if you’ve seen stuff that would be useful to share here.) With that in mind, I’ve come up with a simple approach for doing a structured debrief, covered by the acronym EARS:

  • Explain: tell them what the debrief will cover. (I suggest including: talking about everything that happened, discussing any highlights, addressing any challenging issues that came up in play, talking about how it made us feel, talking about anything we learned.) It’s possible this is going to be mostly enthusiastic reminiscing, but it could be that someone has had a bad time and wants to talk about it. So, encourage everyone to be ready to listen supportively.
  • Agenda: Give everyone the opportunity to name one thing they’d like to talk about, and briefly say why (no big deal if it turns out to be two things, and no big deal if some people don’t have anything they want to talk about.)
  • Reflect: Let each person talk through their one thing in their own words, without interruption. What moment(s) from play are they speaking to? Was there anything in particular they wanted to address in discussion? Why did they want to focus on this?
  • Support: Everyone else is free to respond, but in a supportive way. If you don’t agree with what they said, that’s fine, but try not to make it personal, or make them feel like their opinion isn’t valid. Even if you don’t agree, make sure you listen and try to think about what you can learn from this. Ask clarifying questions and provide your own thoughts and reflections.

As the acronym EARS suggests, the key thing is that we are all listening to each other and that everyone gets a chance to be heard.

The reason you might want to do this in a structured way rather than entirely freeform is chiefly about making sure everyone gets their say. In most groups there are talkative people and quieter people, and a structured approach gives both the opportunity to reflect on the game, if they want to. (again, it’s ok if someone doesn’t have anything to say or doesn’t feel comfortable sharing it in front of everyone, so don’t worry if that happens.) Structure also allows you to plan your time: if one person was really upset about something then we want to allow more time for that, than someone who wants to chew over a particular game mechanic. You also set things up for a supportive conversation, by explaining what it’s all about.

Debriefing can take a little while to do. You don’t want to feel rushed. I’d suggest allowing at least half an hour, and for longer games and/or larger groups you may well want more time.

It may be difficult, in the confines of the limited time allowed for a debrief, and in front of all your friends, to talk openly about how the game made you feel. It’s ok not to want to share it with everyone, of course. You may wish to talk privately with one or two members of the group rather than have a public discussion about it. It’s not a bad idea, particularly for very intense games, to agree to be open to talking about the game, perhaps actively checking in with each other, after the session. For larger games you might even want to agree a buddy to help with this.

A final set of post-game techniques that are worth mentioning are ritual “de-roling” techniques. These are symbolic ways of stepping away from the character you played and returning to real life. Examples are deliberately removing an item of costume and placing it in a circle with others (from LARP, obviously!), or writing a letter to another character expressing your feelings before destroying it.